a new menu for players

I really want play to proceed such that the players help establish the fiction before selecting a skill to use for resolution. In fact, I would rather that they never select a skill but rather narrate their actions and then we can negotiate what skill they use.

Why? Well, I find that players (certainly me) tend to use the skill list as a menu of options and that they logically tend to prefer the better options in order to succeed. Consequently two things happen and I feel that both are usually undesirable. First, action tends to resolve based on their best skills which narrows the scope of the story. This might be fine except that it tends to leave a bunch of skills untouched — why even have the lower tier of skills if they don’t get played?

Second, there’s a certain amount of artificial wedging of skills into scenarios. It’s generally in good faith, but if I’m good at Repairing things I will really try very hard indeed to frame every problem as a repair problem. Often credulity will be stretched.

In the past I’ve “solved” the second by having a rule like “if the table is buying it, fine, but if there’s pretty much any argument, drop it and try another”. Even with this there’s some unwanted meta-discussion about applicability and some unnecessary argument. I’d rather avoid that.

DESTROY IT is a fine answer to “What do you do?”

You can tinker with truncating skill lists so that only the best skills are even represented, and that certainly suits a certain kind of play and certain genres, but for my current projects failure (or even succeeding badly) drives the narrative forward. It creates new problems to solve and does it in a way that relieves the ref of the burden of fabricating all conflict from whole cloth. It lets the story take control of itself and I really really like that right now.

I think these issues are related and so I’m wondering if one solution might be to give players another list, since picking from a list is attractive and powerful. Just not a list of skills. So the path would be to pick a tactic from the list, a general methodology, use it to inspire the narration for the action, and then determine the skill that’s appropriate. What might that list look like? What are generalized methods for solving problems?

Here’s a stab:

Destroy it. Whatever the problem is, the player will remove it forcibly. Drive through it, smash it, shoot it, disassemble it, whatever. We will crush the problem.

Go around it. Try to find a path that bypasses the problem altogether. Drive off-road around the checkpoint, choose a less suspicious door, ignore the treasure chest in the empty room, dig a tunnel under the machine-guns.

Solve it. Defeat the problem exactly as it is presented. A checkpoint? Test your fake papers and your communication skills. A suspicious chest? Check for traps and pick the locks. Directly address the problem in the most direct fashion.

Research it. My players often miss this one so having it on a list might be especially useful. Sometimes the best next step is to investigate the problem and try to find more information about it. Maybe there are known ways around it. Maybe a weakness will be revealed.

Decompose it. The classic engineering solution is to break the problem down into sub-problems and solve them separately. Talk with each other and find the sub-problems and often each of these is simpler than the whole. This is the essence of the ever-elusive “plan” and when you do it it’s very satisfying. But because it’s not very immediate and it’s quite analytical it may not occur to you in the heat of the moment.

Synthesize it. Maybe a bunch of problems are really one problem. Do they link together in a way that is itself a weakness? Maybe disabling each of the security components is not necessary if we look at the security system as a whole and start thinking about how the whole operates. Kill the power? Remove the guard at the CCTV station?

Subvert it. Sometimes the problem can be made to solve itself. Bribe the guard, set off the minefield as a distraction, threaten the guard with the trapped chest. Use the problem against itself.

Embrace it. Let the problem happen and endure it. You’ve spent all that energy one making yourself resistant to poison so just stick your hand in the chest. Run through the minefield playing the odds. Surrender to the border patrol and find a way to continue from inside the compound even if it’s from inside the brig.

More succinctly, destroy, avoid, solve, research, decompose, synthesize, subvert, embrace. With this list could you more readily find a narrative that later implies the skill to use? Would you at least sometimes wind up using your worse skills because the plan at least is “better”? Would the story become a little more varied?

8 thoughts on “a new menu for players

  1. Some useful commentary from another place:

    duneaught Today at 6:39 PM
    It’s the “problem” that’s at the forefront of my thinking most the time.
    How to make a game that people don’t game? :thinking:

    some Atholl (VSCA, he/him)Today at 7:10 PM
    I think that’s probably impossible without removing the game.

    duneaught Today at 7:11 PM
    or what you did (and my instinct also), superimpose a different game

    some Atholl (VSCA, he/him)Today at 7:11 PM
    Unless all choices are functionally equal

    duneaught Today at 7:11 PM
    that one

    some Atholl (VSCA, he/him)Today at 7:12 PM
    Anyway I think this list might be too much to ask — I’m not certain it actually simplifies the player response problem at all.

    duneaught Today at 7:12 PM
    and maybe, if we return to terms we were previously exploring, the functionally decision-free game can feed into the decision-ful improv game… maybe?

    some Atholl (VSCA, he/him)Today at 7:13 PM
    “How do I apply synthesize” is not going to be very fluid.

    duneaught Today at 7:13 PM
    Yeah, as you presented it, it’s more of just an attempt to guide thinking as we prefer. Think of what you do, not what skill you use.

    some Atholl (VSCA, he/him)Today at 7:13 PM
    Maybe. I’m not honestly thinking afield of things I can bolt on to the existing SH system right now though.
    There might be a richer design that pulls this off.
    I might just glue it into a player advice section — “If you’re trying to solve a problem and having trouble and maybe eyeing your skill list for ideas, maybe check out this list first.”

    duneaught Today at 7:15 PM
    So, like, this is something that other games have done. For example, burning wheel family games have the whole artha BIGs systems… where beliefs, instincts, and goals are a separate game that you play. It seems to be an attempt to divert decision-making away from mechanics and into the realm of characterization…

    I just personally don’t enjoy playing that other game because it’s too socially contrived. The Cards Against Humanity of good role playing.

    some Atholl (VSCA, he/him)Today at 7:16 PM
    And you have to be careful of the new and dissociated complexity. BW is bad for that — I can never remember which cleverly named bennie is got how or spent on what.

    duneaught Today at 7:17 PM
    I do like the idea of diverting mechanical attention away from the simulation of competency or physics and toward the emulation of story and characterization.

    some Atholl (VSCA, he/him)Today at 7:17 PM
    And you risk reversing the problem — when you fail you get this bennie risks hunting the skill list for shitty skills, which is no better.

    duneaught Today at 7:17 PM
    I hate advancement on failure.
    because my instinct is to game it

    some Atholl (VSCA, he/him)Today at 7:17 PM
    I think what I do as a ref, just nudge the player when they’re grasping, maybe just needs to be spoken out loud in the book.


  2. As I think on and off about the system I want to design, I tend to want to stay away from skills lists because of what you mention, not wanting them to turn into a menu of ways to game the conflict as opposed to playing through the story. So lately I have been thinking about FAE’s Approaches, and how those don’t tell you what to do but how you do it, and tinkering with how to use that idea for what I want. Your list of ways to engage a conflict is excellent and gives me more stuff to think about. Yes, it does have the potential to become a different menu for the players, but it’s engaging a different way to look at a conflict. Like I said, more to think about. Thanks for that.


  3. This really hits at an issue that happens a lot at my table and I’m going to work on how to work this concept into my games ASAP! So many times players (especially newer ones) fall into the trap of staring at the character sheet, looking for inspiration in attributes or skills/powers when the real solutions lie inside their heads. Maybe this will help them to look for more creative solutions to the problems they come up against.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Some PBTA games have created player principles or agendas, to mirror the GM ones. This menu sounds like Player Moves to mirror GM moves.


  5. I followed you over from the Failure Is Fun conversation at RPG.net. I like your goal of having your players focus more on overall goals before considering methods, so I’ll be interested in what effective methods might turn up.

    On the sub-topic of failure/success vs advancement, like the GT kids in the other post, I find myself leaning away from strict binary approaches in general and favoring more of a calculated risk approach. I was considering a system where successes would contribute experience in a straight predictable fashion but where failure provided more variability, anything from 0 to a lot of experience.

    Liked by 1 person

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